Lazzarato, Foucault, and the Cynics: Highlights


-for Nino


In the final sections of Signs and Machines, Maurizio Lazzarato reads Foucault’s last lectures at the Collège de France (Foucault 2011), which he compares with the philosophy of the Cynics and contrasts with that of Jacques Rancière. One of the notions he highlights is that of parrhēsia, telling the truth. Parrhēsia is “the ‘seizure of speech’ of someone who rises in the assembly and takes the risk of stating the truth concerning the affairs of the city” (Lazzarato 2014: 227).  The point is to understand the question of democracy and the role that equality might play in it. Lazzarato criticizes Rancière’s distinction between politics and ethics and endorses Michel Foucault’s ethico-political –and in the sense of Félix Guattari, existential—project.


Lazzarato argues that true democracy is not discursive or formal, but existential, and it has to do with the production of new subjectivities, singularities that –through ‘ethical differentiation’ (Foucault’s phrase)—break with and escape the social subjections and machinic enslavements of the system of capital. “The creation and production of the new are not made possible through knowledge, information, or communication, but through an existential mutation, a transformation, which involves the non-discursive focal point of subjectivity” (222-223). For Lazzarato, it is this existential transformation, a “transformation of the self” (225), that Foucault and the Cynics (and Guattari, for that matter) allow us to think and hopefully experience and practice.


Lazzarato points out that “Foucault’s last lectures resonate with Guattari’s aesthetic paradigm, with his understanding of politics as invention and experimentation” (225). Earlier in the text, with a reference to Vico’s “topical art,” Lazzarato speaks of Guattari’s notion of existence as self-existentialization (211), namely, the “self-relation to the self, self-affectation, and self-positioning” (ibid.). Self-existentialization happens through parrhēsia (truth-telling) and experimentation. And insofar as it entails “a critique of existing society,” it is “revolutionary” (Foucault quoted in Lazzarato: 225).


What is revolutionary is the production of a new ethos and a new self, “new forms of subjectivation and singularity” (227). This happens through the “ethical differentiation” provoked by parrhēsia, truth-telling. Lazzarato then highlights the difference among four notions Foucault works with: parrhēsia (truth-telling), politeia (the constitution that guarantees the equality of all citizens), isēgoria (the right to speak), and most importantly, dunasteia, which represents the ethical differentiation “because it means taking a position in relation to the self, to others, and to the world” (230). Dunasteia is the “effective exercise of parrhēsia” (ibid.). One does not engage in truth-telling only (or even mainly) because one has the right to do so, for this right by itself can be an empty and void formality and on its account alone truth-telling can also be conveniently evaded. This is why it is problematic to translate parrhēsia with ‘freedom of speech’ –as some do. Rather, one engages in truth-telling because one finds the force or power to do so through self-positioning and self-existentialization, and it is thus that the ethical differentiation occurs. To think and live differently –this is the first and foremost meaning of the ethical differentiation: to experiment with one’s own singularity, not so that one may become an entrepreneur of the self, but precisely in order to challenge and break that injunction (See also Lazzarato 2012). Thus, one contributes in any way possible to decreasing the power of the system while creating the new. This shakes the community, and it is in this sense that parrhēsia is “a risky and indeterminate act” (230).


As Lazzarato says, truth-telling “presupposes a force, a power, an action, upon the self (to have the courage to risk telling the truth), and an action upon others in order to persuade them, guide them, and steer their conduct” (ibid.). This is, he continues, what Foucault means by “ethical differentiation”: “a process of singularization initiated and opened by the parrhesiastic enunciation” (ibid.) – an enunciation which is not only, not necessarily, verbal, but, in the sense of Guattari, existential. It is existential because telling the truth (parrhēsia) “implies that political subjects constitute themselves as ethical subjects, capable of taking risks, posing a challenge … in other words, capable of governing themselves and of governing others within a situation of conflict” (230-231).  Perhaps, at this point, it would be good to insert a very recent illustration of what parrhēsia concretely amounts to. What I have in mind is the University of Yale dishwasher, Corey Menafee, who recently smashed a racist stained-glass window in a dining room in Yale’s residential dorm Calhoun College. “The college is named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun, one of the most prominent pro-slavery figures in history” (see Democracy Now!  On the Democracy Now! show, Menafee describes and justifies his action in parrhesiastic terms. His action could not be performed on the basis of any granted right, but rather on the denial of rights; not on the basis of a dialogue, which Menafee says it is a modality he would prefer, but as an exclusion from any dialogue. The action, the enunciation, necessarily –and regretfully, Menafee admits— had to take the form of, and be sustained by, power or force (as dunasteia).


Lazzarato stresses a very important point having to do with the vexed question of force or power versus rights. He says that truth-telling depends on both, “two heterogeneous regimes, one of right (of politeia and isēgoria) and one of dunasteia (power or force),” and this makes “the relationship between true enunciation (discourse) and democracy … ‘difficult and problematic’ [Foucault]” (231; brackets added). In this sense, Lazzarato also problematizes the difference between Foucault and Rancière (and Badiou) around the question of equality. Indeed, equality is “the necessary but not sufficient condition of the differential process in which ‘rights for all’ are the social bases of a subjectivation that builds ‘an other life’ and ‘an other world’” (242). The most important fact –important from an existential point of view—is that “parrhēsia does not presuppose any status; it is the enunciation of ‘anyone at all’” (234). It is then not a matter of equality, but of courage, power, and freedom. In fact, “equality hinders freedom, equality prevents ‘ethical differentiation,’ it drowns subjectivity in the indifference of subjects of rights” (236).


Here Lazzarato speaks of the “crisis of parrhēsia,” a crisis which is particularly evident in the neoliberal paradigm of “freedom,” where truth-telling “is no longer exposed to the risks of politics” (236). Instead, there is a move back toward Platonism, the moral subject, and a “metaphysics of the soul” (236-237).  In this sense, the focus is on “the other world” and “the other life.” This move is contrasted by the philosophy of the Cynics. Their thought provides an exit from, and a resolution to, the crisis. Here, the focus is on an “aesthetics of life,” the creation of “an other life / an other world” (237). Lazzarato says that the Cynics “counter ‘true life’ by claiming and practicing ‘an other life’ – a life, he continues quoting Foucault, “whose otherness must lead to the change of the world. An other life for an other world” (237; Foucault 2011: 287).


Equality-based political discourse leads to a crisis, to a formal notion of democracy, and it changes parrhēsia to a vague and empty exercise of freedom of speech. As we know, this freedom is not at all free, but preestablished and controlled by institutionalized forces and powers. In fact, it rests on the exclusion and neutralization of dunasteia, the genuine force or power to speak in one’s own singular voice. This is apparent when one considers the mainstream discourse of politics and the media. In this type of discourse, what is excluded is not even included as excluded, but rather is made totally invisible, thrown out of existence altogether. What remains is the space for political discourse, political dialogue among “equals.” All this happens through a process of institutionalization and normalization, in which paradoxically equality obtains in the midst of the worst situations of inequality, the many inequalities.


Following Foucault, Lazzarato says that the Cynics “go beyond the ‘crisis’ of parrhēsia, the powerlessness of democracy and equality, to produce ethical differentiation, by binding politics and ethics (and truth) indissolubly together” (Lazzarato 2014: 237). He takes issue with Rancière, whose philosophy aims at inclusion and recognition. For Foucault, Lazzarato continues, “the issue is not ensuring that those who have no part [Rancière’s phrase] are counted, nor their demonstrating that they speak in the same language as their masters [Rancière’s requirement]” (240; emphasis and brackets added). The issue is instead a “transvaluation” of all values and the invention of new subjectivities and singularities. “In transvaluation, equality combines with difference, political equality with ethical differentiation” (ibid.).


It is precisely because the model of equality does not include those who have no part in it –and yet, they exist—that a claim to inclusion should be rejected or evaded. Making such a claim only results in a waste of creative time, and an impoverishment of one’s existence and singularity. Instead, there must be –as we have seen—a turn toward an other life and an other world. Lazzarato says that the Cynics “do not ask for recognition, they do not seek to be counted or included. They criticize and scrutinize the institutions and ways of life of their peers through self-experimentation and self-examination and the experimentation and examination of others and the world” (ibid.).  In the approach of the Cynics there is not a renunciation of language and discourse. But language has now an existential, ethico-political, function. With a reference to Guattari, Lazzarato says that language, understood as ‘performative’ language, “helps construct existential territories” (243).  Language itself becomes a form of existence, not mere representation. Lazzarato quotes Foucault who speaks of “the function of the true life” (an other life) “as at the same time, form of existence, manifestation of self, and physical model of the truth, but also enterprise of demonstration, conviction, and persuasion through discourse” (243-244; Foucault 2011: 314). Persuasion. This is different from making a claim, perhaps a plea, for inclusion in a system which, even when it becomes willing or forced to concede, will still and only include the excluded as excluded.  We know the long history of this: slavery, work, the prison, and the camp. This is different from constructing new existential territories, new subjectivities and singularities. Today, however, against capital and the State, the issue is building “a relation to the self, that breaks with subjections” (246). This is a “militant” (a word also used by Foucault) and “transindividual” (see Read 2016) task, which “does not represent the teaching or expression of a new moral code” (Lazzarato 2014: 247). It is rather a way of “reorienting the question of politics by opening up an indeterminate space and time for ethical differentiation and the formation of a collective self” (ibid.).




Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. 2011. The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II. Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984, trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2014. Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity,trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

______________.  2012. The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Read, Jason. 2016. The Politics of Transindividuality. Leiden and Boston: Brill (Historical Materialism Book Series 106).


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